Sea-level rise driven by climate change poses a deadly threat to 233 federally protected animal and plant species in 23 coastal states, according to a new scientific report from the Center for Biological Diversity, and U.S. wildlife protection agencies are not doing enough to protect at-risk species.
In a letter to the two wildlife agencies, Center scientists pointed out that the federal government’s existing wildlife policies offer little useful guidance or strategies for protecting endangered species from sea-level rise. The letter urges officials to revamp species-protection plans to focus on the threat.
For the Deadly Waters report, Center scientists analyzed data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as scientific literature. The Center found that 17 percent—one in six—of the nation’s threatened and endangered species are at risk from rising sea levels and storm surges. The report also details the specific danger to five of the species most threatened by sea-level rise.
“From Florida’s key deer to Hawaii’s monk seals, some of our most amazing creatures could be doomed as the oceans swallow up their last habitat and nesting sites,” said Dr. Shaye Wolf, the Center’s climate science director. “If we don’t move fast to cut carbon pollution and protect ecosystems, climate chaos could do tremendous damage to our web of life."
"Federal wildlife officials have to step up efforts to protect America’s endangered species from the deadly threat of rising seas," Wolf concluded.
The Center’s analysis follows a stark warning from the National Research Council, which recently released a report saying that global warming threatens to inflict rapid and catastrophic changes on some ecosystems and could cause a mass extinction of plants and animals.
The U.S. is home to approximately 1,500 federally protected threatened and endangered species, many of which depend on coastal and island habitats for survival. As greenhouse gas pollution builds up in the atmosphere, rising oceans and increasingly dangerous storm surges will threaten already endangered animals that inhabit coastal wetlands, beaches and other vulnerable ecosystems.
Here are five of the most at-risk species:
Five of the Species Most Threatened by Sea-level Rise
Species at Risk
|1. Key deer|
Approximately 800 deer
About 86 percent of islands occupied by Florida’s Key deer are less than 3 feet above sea level.
|2. Loggerhead sea turtle|
Approximately 17,000 females nesting each year in the United States
At Florida’s Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, 42 percent of loggerhead nesting beaches are expected to disappear with 1.5 feet of sea-level rise.
|3. Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel|
20,000 to 38,000 squirrels
Half of the fox squirrels’ habitat would be inundated by 6 feet of sea-level rise, which could occur in this century.
|4. Western snowy plover|
A third of the West Coast beach habitat areas used by the plovers are less than 3 feet above sea level.
|5. Hawaiian monk seal|
About 1,000 seals
Sea-level rise poses a serious threat to monk seals’ pupping beaches; one key island has already disappeared.
The 23 states with endangered species threatened by sea-level rise are Alabama, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
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Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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